Friday, January 27, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 27

Shabbat-O-Gram


     
Cantor Fishman teaching the art of spiritual chant (niggun) to the TBE Discussion Group havurah last Sunday evening.  For our entire winter album, click here



Shabbat Shalom

This evening, we bring in Shabbat and also enter the month of Shevat, a time to begin literally planting the seeds in anticipation of Spring.  This week's to do list:
- Have you gotten your Temple Rock reservations in yet?
- Join us for services this evening, with guest musician Cantor Ellen Arad joining Cantor Fishman, Assaf Gleizner and myself.
- Join us tomorrow for our main service at 9:30, Shabbat School and Shababimbam, culminating in lunch for everyone!

An Oasis in the Sky

   

Carol King, James Taylor and the Drifters all knew what to do "when this ol' world starts a getting you down." They found comfort and calm "Up on the Roof."  And now, so do I - in the most ironic places: a hospital.  The new Stamford Hospital's upper floors are not entirely placid, and there's a good deal of sadness and pain in those rooms.  But look out the window and see Stamford unfold before you - and then over at the Sound, and the New York skyline in the distance.  The view of Manhattan was other-worldly yesterday afternoon - the photo above doesn't begin to capture how the cloud-directed rays of light from the late afternoon sun turned the miniature, distant skyline into what looked more like a gateway to heaven.  There are also quiet rooms on those upper floors, meant for families and the occasionally hassled clergy, complete with a massage chair.  So thank you to the new Stamford Hospital, and the oasis that can be found up-on-the-top-floors.

Recommended Reads
  • See also my latest Jewish Week column, "The Elephant in the Room" looks at the demise of Ringling Bros. Circus, which saw attendance decline once they succumbed to pressures brought on by animal rights groups over their treatment of elephants.  Contrast this to the success of elephant-free Cirque du Soleil, which expanded to a Broadway musical this month.  Ringling Bros.' demise is further proof that the power of the purse can prove decisive in asserting values of mutual respect, a reverence for innocence and an unconditional love for the most vulnerable among us. Even for the elephant in the room.
Four Oscar Contenders, One Overwhelming Moral Message

A couple of weeks ago, I announced my Jos-car nominations in this space, looking at the year's best films from a Jewish lens.  I followed up with an analysis of "La La Land," a film often called escapist that is in truth aspirational and transcendent, much like Judaism itself.

Now let's take a look at four other acclaimed films that could not be more timely: "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures," "Loving," and "Fences."

The Academy Awards' diversity problem was somewhat alleviated, as six African American actors received nominations this week, and several films addressing institutional racism both past and present were recognized with major nominations. 

In films like "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures," "Loving," and "Fences," we confront the significant social obstacles faced by a young gay African American coming of age in Miami, three extraordinarily qualified female scientists-of-color in 1960's Virginia, an interracial couple in 1960's Virginia (Virginia evidently, wasn't for Lovers until later) and a hall-of-fame caliber black baseball player from Pittsburgh (Virginia gets a reprieve here) who was denied a chance to fulfill his dreams.

In some cases, these protagonists prevail over the overwhelming odds, and in others, their tragic predicament overwhelms them.  There is biblical precedent for this.
This week's Torah portion of Va-era funnels us through the experience of Israelite slaves struggling to surmount the burdens of unremitting servitude, which, in the words of the Ostrovtzer Rebbe, left the Israelites depressed, drained of their desire for hope and freedom.  They were beaten down, body and soul.  This early twentieth-century rebbe understood the ravages of suffering.  He rejected nearly all of life's pleasures - and fasted for forty years.  The Ten Plagues, seven of which are found in this portion, were intended to instill confidence, lifting the spirits of the Israelites every bit as much as they knocked the Egyptians down to size.

Racism has crushed the American spirit in a similar manner, rendering us numb and helpless as we grope to address a problem that just never seems to go away.  Time never has been able to heal the searing pain from that wound.  The pain exists on all sides.  The wrongs can never totally be righted.

In this new era, where the KKK shows up to rally in support of the Attorney General nominee and the "Small-Caps kkk" is now being accepted in polite company, we need to remind ourselves that the rights gained by the Lovings and their contemporaries are fragile indeed. 

At a time when proven facts are being portrayed as annoying nuisances and the Trump Administration is doubling down on the fraudulent claim of mass voter fraud, these Oscar nominees are proving to be a protective barrier for the American conscience, the only wall we really need to be constructing right now.

If an inquiry is needed into voting irregularities, as President Trump now suggests, then the investigator's eye should be focusing on voter suppression and the fraying Voting Rights Act, rather than on spreading falsehoods about undocumented immigrants.
For that landmark 1965 legislation is all that separates us from a return to the days of rampant discrimination. Take a look at this nearly impossible Louisiana literacy test from 1964, which prevented legions of minorities from being able to vote.  Literacy tests, along with poll taxes and other forms of extra-legal intimidation, were used to deny voting rights to African Americans.  A number of these tests can be found online

I'll bet not even the whiz kids of "Hidden Figures" could have passed them.  See how you do.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his landmark address to a conference on religion and race, we read in Genesis that God created different kinds of plants and different kinds of animals. But strikingly, the Creation account does not say that God created different kinds of human beings, of different colors and races; rather it proclaims that God created one single person. From a single human being all are descended, and all humans have been created in God's image.

The pervasive need to address racial discrimination may be an inconvenient truth to some, but, from a Jewish perspective, an overwhelming moral case can be made for vigilance.  And it's a case that cannot be muddled by bogus investigations and "alternative facts."  President Trump likely doesn't realize it, but the fight we are waging is for him and his children - and his grandchildren too. 

Like our ancestors in Egypt, Americans and Jews have lots of emotional scars to overcome.  But the schadenfreude of watching enemies succumb to vermin, frogs and cattle disease will not be nearly enough to save our national soul.  There will be no true victory until all parties can dance together on the shores of the Red Sea.

This quartet of acclaimed films celebrates the indomitable spirit of wounded warriors of an interminable struggle. "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures," "Fences" and "Loving" leave us heartbroken but resolute.  While none of these four movies may be "Best Picture" this year, they are all by far the most indispensable.


Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Elephant In The Room

The Elephant In The Room

 January 23, 2017, 12:15 pm 
Ryan Henning, an elephant handler, trainer and Deputy Animal Supervisor for Ringling Bros. with the elephants as they performed their last show at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The elephant show had it's last show this day and the animals were trucked to Florida as they were retired. -- We followed the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as they discontinue the elephant act as part of their shows. The Elephants will live in retirement in Florida. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The closing of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus came as a shock to those of us who grew up with fond memories of this slice of Americana. The trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, unicyclists and yes, even the clowns, all occupy a special place in the hearts of generations of young children, many who entertained thoughts at one time or another, of running away to join them.
But above all else, there were the elephants. When the circus came to town, kids poured into the streets to see the parade, featuring these enormous, mysterious, brilliant, and astonishingly submissive mammals, whose sad eyes betrayed a history of abuse that few of us took the time to imagine.
Circus spokespeople have stated that the elimination of elephants, which was announced a year ago in response to growing animal rights protests, led directly to Ringling’s demise. Bolstering that point, when the elephant phase-out was announced, Donald Trump tweeted in disapproval that he would “never go again.” Predictably, the closure was greeted by some pundits as an unfortunate triumph for Political Correctness.
But Ringling Bros.’ fate was sealed not by the removal of their pachyderms this past year, but by their horrific mistreatment for decades. It was similar to how Sea World saw its attendance decline following protests from animal rights groups. The theme park has since undergone a massive rebranding as “Shamu’s Happy Harbor,” in an attempt to convince the world that orcas are lining up to exchange their precious freedom for a chance to be ogled by masses of young tourists and eat unlimited amounts of herring.
joshua-hammerman
Mainstream Jewish advocacy groups have generally stayed out of the animal rights fray, which is to be expected. They having enough trouble keeping up with human events these days, and besides, the owners of Ringling Brothers are Jewish. Best to stay away from this one.
Or is it? Feeling the pain of animals is a prime Jewish value, most notably (and somewhat ironically) expressed in the laws of kashrut. Cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden in Jewish law, in part because feeling their pain (in Hebrew “tza’ar ba’alay chaim”) trains us to treat people with similar reverence. After all, Moses, David and other great leaders gained their leadership bonafides as caring shepherds.
Here’s a tweet, penned by journalist Walter Shapiro, which caught my eye shortly after the circus closing was announced:
They came for the elephants, but I wasn’t an elephant so I said nothing.” How I feel about the end of Ringling Brothers Circus.
On the surface, this is an amusing adaptation of the famous writing of Holocaust era theologian Martin Niem√∂ller, one that has found new popularity in the Age of Trump. Here’s a snippet:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist….Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I heard an interesting take on this at a recent conference bringing together Jews and Muslims. In his introductory remarks, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the sponsoring Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said that Niemoller’s sentiment was admirable but insufficient, because the sympathy one feels for targeted groups should not be motivated simply by self-preservation. The Torah states dozens of times that we should empathize with the stranger because we too were victims of callous discrimination, not because our apathy might otherwise cause us to become victims again. We should care about socialists and trade unionists – and Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities, Mexicans and LGBT – because it’s the right thing to do.
That’s also why it is Jewishly correct to be politically correct. Not only that, but political correctness has turned out to be really good business. Even as the White House is now inhabited by the most unabashedly politically incorrect president in history, a P.C. landslide is sweeping the country.
Just a day after the Ringling Bros. revelation, the animal-reliant Big Apple Circus announced that it would be selling off its assets in a bankruptcy auction.
Ringling Bros.’ fate was sealed not by the removal of their pachyderms this past year, but by their horrific mistreatment for decades.
Wal-Mart sells lots of books with titles like “The Tyranny of the Politically Correct,” but in 2015 their CEO, Doug McMillon, voiced opposition to “religious freedom” bills discriminating against LGBT. We saw similar reactions to such bills in Indiana, North Carolina and elsewhere. Even China responded to international protests over rampant elephant poaching in recently shutting down the world’s largest ivory market.
Sure, political correctness can be taken too far sometimes. Back in the early ’90s, a newspaper programmed its computer to be so P.C. that when an article spoke about the Massachusetts budget crisis, it was automatically edited to say that the state had put itself back in the “African American,” rather than “the black.” Political correctness has been seen as a tool of condescension, often used to shame social conservatives into using more sensitive language. And to label progressives as P.C. has also been a tool of humiliation and disdain.
Last year Brown University officially renamed Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day.” I’m no fan of Columbus’ cruel treatment of indigenous peoples, but I think it’s unproductive to summarily jettison a celebration that has become synonymous with ethnic pride for many of Italian and Spanish descent. There are more effective – and less condescending – ways to teach us to love one another.
P.C. should not be a banner used to bludgeon the opposition. For me it stands for “Perfectly Civilized.” And increasingly, the American marketplace is agreeing.
Ringling Bros.’ demise is further proof that the power of the purse can prove decisive in asserting values of mutual respect, a reverence for innocence and an unconditional love for the most vulnerable among us. Even for the elephant in the room.

Four Oscar Contenders, One Overwhelming Moral Message

Four Oscar Contenders, One Overwhelming Moral Message

JANUARY 26, 2017, 7:00 PM 
A couple of weeks ago, I announced my Jos-car nominations in this space, looking at the year’s best films from a Jewish lens. I followed up with an analysis of “La La Land,” a film often called escapist that is in truth aspirational and transcendent, much like Judaism itself.
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Now let’s take a look at four other acclaimed films that could not be more timely: “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” and “Fences.”
The Academy Awards’ diversity problem was somewhat alleviated, as six African American actors received nominations this week, and several films addressing institutional racism both past and present were recognized with major nominations.
In films like “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” and “Fences,” we confront the significant social obstacles faced by a young gay African American coming of age in Miami, three extraordinarily qualified female scientists-of-color in 1960’s Virginia, an interracial couple in 1960’s Virginia (Virginia evidently, wasn’t for Lovers until later) and a hall-of-fame caliber black baseball player from Pittsburgh (Virginia gets a reprieve here) who was denied a chance to fulfill his dreams.
In some cases, these protagonists prevail over the overwhelming odds, and in others, their tragic predicament overwhelms them.  There is biblical precedent for this.
This week’s Torah portion of Va-era funnels us through the experience of Israelite slaves struggling to surmount the burdens of unremitting servitude, which, in the words of the Ostrovtzer Rebbe, left the Israelites depressed, drained of their desire for hope and freedom.  They were beaten down, body and soul.  This early 20th-century rebbe understood the ravages of suffering.  He rejected nearly all of life’s pleasures – and fasted for forty years.  The Ten Plagues, seven of which are found in this portion, were intended to instill confidence, lifting the spirits of the Israelites every bit as much as they knocked the Egyptians down to size.
Racism has crushed the American spirit in a similar manner, rendering us numb and helpless as we grope to address a problem that just never seems to go away.  Time never has been able to heal the searing pain from that wound.  The pain exists on all sides.  The wrongs can never totally be righted.
In this new era, where the KKK shows up to rally in support of the Attorney General nominee and the “Small-Caps kkk” is now being accepted in polite company, we need to remind ourselves that the rights gained by the Lovings and their contemporaries are fragile indeed.
At a time when proven facts are being portrayed as annoying nuisances and the Trump Administration is doubling down on the fraudulent claim of mass voter fraud, these Oscar nominees are proving to be a protective barrier for the American conscience, the only wall we really need to be constructing right now.
If an inquiry is needed into voting irregularities, as President Trump now suggests, then the investigator’s eye should be focusing on voter suppression and the fraying Voting Rights Act, rather than on spreading falsehoods about undocumented immigrants.
For that landmark 1965 legislation is all that separates us from a return to the days of rampant discrimination. Take a look at this nearly impossible Louisiana literacy test from 1964, which prevented legions of minorities from being able to vote.  Literacy tests, along with poll taxes and other forms of extra-legal intimidation, were used to deny voting rights to African Americans.  A number of these tests can be found online.  I’ll bet not even the whiz kids of “Hidden Figures” could have passed them.  See how you do.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his landmark address to a conference on religion and race, we read in Genesis that God created different kinds of plants and different kinds of animals. But strikingly, the Creation account does not say that God created different kinds of human beings, of different colors and races; rather it proclaims that God created one single person. From a single human being all are descended, and all humans have been created in God’s image.
The pervasive need to address racial discrimination may be an inconvenient truth to some, but, from a Jewish perspective, an overwhelming moral case can be made for vigilance.  And it’s a case that cannot be muddled by bogus investigations and “alternative facts.”  President Trump likely doesn’t realize it, but the fight we are waging is for him and his children – and his grandchildren too.
Like our ancestors in Egypt, Americans and Jews have lots of emotional scars to overcome.  But the schadenfreude of watching enemies succumb to vermin, frogs and cattle disease will not be nearly enough to save our national soul.  There will be no true victory until all parties can dance together on the shores of the Red Sea.
This quartet of acclaimed films celebrates the indomitable spirit of wounded warriors of an interminable struggle. “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Loving” leave us heartbroken but resolute.  While none of these four movies may be “Best Picture” this year, they are all by far the most indispensable.